Tag Archives: poetry

Brick’s GM multi-tasks for poetry

Coastal Spectator contributor Julian Gunn recently sat down over coffee to chat with Kitty Lewis, the general manager of poetry publisher Brick Books. At this year’s League of Canadian Poets gala, Lewis received the League’s Honorary Life Membership Award. She insists that her contribution is to support the artistic vision of Brick founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland. Still, it’s obvious how much the poetry community appreciates that contribution. Gunn’s interview encompassed a discussion of Brick’s current projects, the history of the publisher, and its commitment to Canadian poetry.

Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Brick Books?

The press started 39 years ago, and I’ve been around something like 25. I always forget how long. Don McKay, who’s a poet, and Stan Dragland, who’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, were both teaching at Western University (the University of Western Ontario in those days). They kept coming across students who were writing poetry, and they said, “We should publish some of this.” They started with chapbooks, and then, as people started sending in longer manuscripts, we got into applying for grants for full-length books.

I don’t do the choosing. I don’t do the editing. I don’t do production. I do everything else. I’m the administration. You need someone practical. There are artistic people who are running presses who can do it all. They can write, they can edit, but that’s not one of my talents. What’s great is that I get to run a business but I’m not risking my own money. (She laughs.)

So what’s it like in the Brick Books office? Are there people always coming and going? Interns?

No, no.  It’s in my house. I work strange hours. I tend to stay up really late at night. I maybe start working in the morning at 10 or 11. At 8 o’clock I might watch some TV, and then I might do a couple more hours of work. I go away in the summer. I have a cottage and I just move Brick Books there. As long as I have the Internet, I can run the business.

It never worked out to get an intern. I love to impart what I know, and I’m always happy to meet with people. If anybody writes asking about Brick Books, I will usually meet with them, because they’re interested in publishing. I’ll just sit them down, and we’ll have a chat so I can give them an idea of what it’s all about.

I’ve found through the years that the more you do, the more there is to do. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter years ago. We didn’t have the Internet.

Speaking of which, Brick Books has a broad-based Internet presence. You seem to have ventured into all available social media. I’m assuming that’s a deliberate strategy?

I started on Facebook because my older son said “Hey! My friends are on here. Lots of people would like to be friends with you.” Then I started looking around, and I saw that other publishers were on the Internet. I just started building that up.

There’s a grant called the OMDC Book Fund – that stands for the Ontario Media Development Corporation. There are grants for film and television and books, all under the same umbrella. In the past, the grant was more for something over and above what you would normally do. In 2008 we had two poets laureate on our list: Agnes Walsh from St John’s, Newfoundland, and Lorri Neilsen Glenn from Halifax. I said, “Are you interested in visiting other poets laureate across the country?” Because you know, I network. I had met these people or at least been in touch with them. So we got the grant, and then the poets said “You don’t suppose we could go up north, do you?” Well, I had no contacts up there, but one of our authors had been to the Whitehorse Poetry Festival (www.whitehorsepoetry.com), so I got that person’s contact and we went north. We went to Edmonton, Yellowknife, Whitehorse – I went with them to those three – then Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. So that was the kind of thing we were proposing in those days.

Then the OMDC grant added funding for digital projects. I wanted a project that was going to raise our visibility and discoverability. I knew someone in Toronto who was really good at social media, Julie Wilson. I told her “I’d like to talk to you sometime, but I don’t want to just talk to you and get advice and then buzz off and do it. I want to talk to you, and then I want to hire you.”

We’re a poetry publisher. We’re not looking for fireworks. We’re solid, we believe in what we do, and we believe in quality. I felt that she would understand who we were. And what she came up with is podcasts. We’ve done the whole history of Brick Books. We have books that we published in 1975, and I’ve now got three of the books from Fall 2014 already recorded. We’ve got almost a thousand poems recorded now.

We launched the podcast in Poetry Month one year, then created the YouTube channel. We do about six poems from each book, just to give a taste. On the YouTube channel we put those together and that’s a single podcast. I think the authors really like it. We’re including everybody. We’re not excluding you just because we published you in the 1990s – you’re still part of it.

Of all the things you do to connect readers to the poetry, which do you think are the most effective?

We just keep chugging away. Every year when you’re doing a new grant, you trot out your numbers. So the views on the YouTube channel are increasing, the number of podcast poems is increasing. We have more followers on Twitter. Facebook has become really hard now because they’re only showing 30 per cent of your people. That’s unfortunate, because that was a really good method. We’re still using it.

The Literary Press Group is creating an online bookstore which will be launched in the next few months, so that’s going to be the Canadian place to go. It includes Canadian literary presses – I think there are 35 publishers on board now. We do sell books from our own website, but people are looking for the author, not Brick Books.

I’m constantly networking with reading series . . . Then you have something like Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry reading series. They do that too, but there are more spaces, so that flexibility is great. Planet Earth is definitely my go-to place.

I know Brick Books is interested in emerging poets as well. Is that a policy?

Don and Stan were teachers, right? If we wanted to publish just established authors, we could, but that’s not where their hearts are. We do seven books a year, so we don’t say “Okay, three need to be first books.” It just happens. We don’t publish a first book just because. We read submissions between the first of January and the end of April every year. We get an average of a hundred submissions, and we have enough money to do seven books. So the manuscript kind of has to sparkle to rise above the others. Those ones will go into the finals. There might be anywhere from eight to 15 that we have to choose those seven out of and that’s hard because there’s not a lot of difference of quality between them. They’ll be strong in different ways. We do about 60 per cent first and second books and then 40 per cent third and up. I’ve been keeping the statistics.

The thing that’s nice about Brick Books is that we only do poetry, so it’s very easy to treat everybody the same way. If you do fiction, you’re probably going to devote a little more time to the fiction because it might make more money and help you afford to do the poetry. We do seven books and everybody gets treated the same way. It suits my temperament, like being inclusive with the podcasts and the ebooks – we just include everybody.

We are trying to run a business and we are trying to be fiscally responsible. But – as Don says – we have the hearts of peasants. We believe in people. We believe in writing. We believe in treating people with respect. Once you’re a Brick author you’re always a Brick author.

(In addition to Lewis’ recent award, on February 23rd Brick Books received the first Publishers’ Award from the Galiano Literary Festival.)

Poet illuminates fragmented life

Poet Chris Hutchinson’s new book, Jonas in Frames: An Epic (Goose Lane), is brilliant, funny, challenging, a hybrid form for our times.  Born in Montreal in 1972, Hutchinson has published three books of poetry: Unfamiliar Weather, Other Peoples’ Lives and A Brief History of the Short Lived. He has a BFA from the University of Victoria and an MFA from Arizona State University. He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about his life and work.

 Chris, I found myself both chuckling and laughing out loud in Jonas in Frames, mainly because of all the usual suspects that you skewer so skillfully. Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book within your writing practice as a poet?

Firstly, I’m glad you chuckled and laughed as you read. Even though many of the raw materials I excavated for the book came from a younger, more cynical version of myself—someone more prone to rages and depression who took himself much too seriously—I hoped to transform these materials into something else, worthy of a reader’s attention. In many ways Jonas is the artsy book about suffering I wanted to write when I was in my early twenties, but I had to wait until I was in my early forties before I could make any attempt that didn’t indulge in explicit autobiography or morbid confession. It’s hard to write black humour when the darkness surrounds you. Fortunately, time allows for new perspectives, and maybe even room for some levity and light.

Also, my so-called practice as a poet you mention—which has included the whole gamut of trials and errors, from subsisting as a self-styled poète maudit, to publishing flarf under various pseudonyms, to studying Old English and translating Beowulf in academia—this poetry habit, this “craft so long to learne,” along with its requisite discipline, has gradually taught me not only how to think more cautiously, critically and even technically about my own experiences, feelings and ideas, but also how to then move beyond them in order to make (the word “poet” coming to us from the Greek, poiētḗs, or “maker”) something I might refer to (while suffering a relapse of grandiosity) as art. I’m also much better read in poetry than in other genres, and so this might have something to do with how I conceived of Jonas in Frames as a epic poem (tongue planted firmly in cheek) disguised as a (picaresque?) novel.

Some readers may characterize Jonas as anti-social, but I found him to be wonderfully observant. In the segment called “The Good Life,” Jonas visits “long-lost friends” and observes that “Now all of them have babies.” His descriptions of the infants as “pink-headed babies with slobbery jowls,” “toothless sponge-cake-faced babies with sea anemones for hands,” struck me as terrific images.  In fact, that whole segment reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent comment that parents today regard their children as “artisanal projects.” Did Chris the Author worry that Jonas the Observer was going to cost him a lot of sensitive friends when this book was published?

Artisanal projects! I wish I had thought of that. But neither Chris the Author nor his creation, Jonas the Observer, holds anything against young well-to-do parents or the products of their adventures in procreation. God bless anyone who can provide a safe home for their children. And Chris the Author has enough sensitive friends that he can afford to lose a few if their sensitivity overwhelms their ability to discern between literary fiction and so-called real life.

My sense is that Jonas isn’t as much anti-social as he is socially incapable and embarrassed—a subtle but significant difference, I think. Most of us can probably recall something like this from childhood, or we can be reminded visiting a busy playground: some kid who gets left out is still hovering around the edge of the circle, desperately wanting to join in, but for some reason he can’t. Maybe he’s shy, afraid, or he doesn’t understand the correct playground protocols. Or maybe there’s some nameless thing about the child, some slight difference or sensitivity, which the other kids sniff out and feel gives them permission to be cruel. This dilemma can extend into adult life where social estrangement might broaden to include cultural, political, and economic estrangement.

So it is with Jonas, who isn’t necessarily repulsed by these bourgeois parents or their babies; rather he’s flummoxed, fascinated, somewhat envious, and hurt by a larger and more general feeling of exclusion. As a hovering outsider Jonas is in a sort of double bind. He can enjoy a remarkable independence of consciousness and a unique perspective from which to observe, yet his enjoyment is short-lived as time and time again he runs up against a failure of communication. Put another way, he can watch but he can’t participate; consequently his vision turns inward and involutes. I think this is also one of the tragic letdowns of Romanticism: when our language becomes too private, too subjectively saturated, it ultimately betrays us.

Another idea I’ll float out there is that this predicament, this feeling of being isolated or “left out,” might be a generational soul-sickness born as the wave of prosperity of the baby-boomers crashed amidst their children’s expectations for upward mobility, success, or even riches and fame. In this light, Jonas can be seen as having been barred from participating in a certain cozy vision of the future based on the hippie fallacy that each of us is somehow inherently ‘special’ and thereby entitled to certain first-world privileges.

A colleague of mine recently observed that we live in discontinuous times because we are so often being assailed by floating “hits” of information and image.  It seems to me Jonas’s take on the world reflects that somewhat.  Has the electronic invasion of our lives affected you as a writer?

I recently joined Twitter. I am now a part of the problem. Although it seems to me that the latest tool for the dissemination of information is nothing new under the sun, and that we’ve been living in a “discontinuous” state for a while now. The world, as always, is too much with us. I have no doubt that I am a product of my specific historical moment in more ways than I can ever consciously know—even as I’m left wondering whether Twitter and Facebook are just the most recent symptoms of the kind of mind-body dualism that goes back beyond Postmodernism and Modernism to at least the 17th century of René Descartes…

At any rate, yes, Jonas’s world is jumbled and fragmentary, and his experience of reality is one where “it appears that something or someone is removing segments from (his life) and now only frames—isolate, disjointed—remain” (JIF). And while the world of Jonas in Frames doesn’t deal directly with online culture (an oxymoron?) per se, it’s true that many of Jonas’s identity issues and relationship crises seem to stem from his fear that he is trapped inside an existence where his thoughts and actions are being monitored and controlled by a power beyond his ability to perceive or comprehend.

Maybe his fear is unfounded, irrational. Maybe it’s not. We might ask: what does it mean that we voluntarily modify our identities so that they fit snugly into little boxes to be stored inside some digital database whose contents now belong to the highest bidder on the open market? What does it portend when we do this so cheerfully? These are the kinds of questions that might drive Jonas mad, although his head never stops buzzing long enough for him to be able to ask them coherently.

Content without form is meaningless, and alas, Jonas’s thoughts are all sprawling content, tangents without origins, signs without stable referents, broken links, broken mirror shards of self-reflection. Therefore Jonas doesn’t have much of a “take on the world” as he is himself taken by the world: its forms are imposed on him and so he is like Jonah swallowed down by the whale. As such, I’m not sure he’s so very different from the rest of us.

You and Jonas share a certain kind of peripatetic rootlessness.  I see from your bio that you’ve lived in six or seven wildly different cities — Montreal, Victoria, Vancouver, Dawson City, New York City, Houston, not to mention Kelowna — so I am wondering, is a writer truly the sum of all the places he has resided?

Don’t forget Nelson, Gibsons, Toronto, and Phoenix! If nothing else, moving and living around in North America has given me the chance to survey certain recurring features of the socio-economic landscape, so to speak. Issues of gentrification, for example, are not unique to any one particular city. What’s happened in Williamsburg, NY, has also happened or is happening to every other blue-collar neighbourhood I’ve tried to live in: working class families and whole communities with historical ties to specific regions are being forced to move. Artists (like Jonas) are getting priced out of urban centres. None of this is news (and it’s not as shocking as factory workers beating their CEO to death, which happened recently in West Bengal), but witnessing and to some degree participating in these reiterating first-world class-tremors gives you a sense of the scope of what is certainly a burgeoning North American crisis. Perhaps writing Jonas into being was, in part at least, my attempt to illustrate, via the pathos of tragicomedy, some of the spiritual fallout of all this.

Again I’d like to note that I wasn’t as interested in documenting my own mazy meanderings and personal catastrophes (like regrets, I’ve had a few) as I was in embodying certain aspects of our collective psychosis (what else to call it?). Jonas might be my shadow-persona, but he’s also a parodic, down-on-his-luck everyman. Whereas I have roots in the Pacific Northwest and I’m lucky enough to have been somewhat stabilized by my colleagues and loved-ones, and the occasional teaching gig, Jonas is dangerously adrift, somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis. His parents are dead, he is next to unemployable, and he is quite possibly incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with another human being. Travel may have broadened my horizons and extended my parameters, but Jonas is diminished by travel, driven as he is by a desire to flee and to hide himself away. Perhaps he is the sum of all the places he’s been, but to me this is a recipe for mental illness. I’d say it is folly to believe, as Jonas wants to believe, that “enough information, once gathered and incorporated, might one day crystallize into wisdom” (JIF).

What has the audience response been as you tour with your book? Do readers “get” Jonas?  Do they “get” you?

The book is still very new, but already there have been a few positive echoes, including a brilliant spinoff comic called Born Stumbling by Sunshine Coast artist, Alex Cieslik, and a Jonas-inspired spoken word/sound piece by Joel T. Springsteen of the London, UK-based band, Giant Burger. I can’t think of better responses than these. But, as one reviewer has already plainly stated about the book, “By no means is it for everybody.”

Poet tackles life’s uncertainty

The Fleece Era

Joanna Lilley

Brick Books

105 pages, $20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Joanna Lilley’s The Fleece Era is the discovery of Brick Books’ spring season, a first poetry collection with a subtle, shifting vision of ecological and human connection. Lilley is a transplant, raised in England and now living in the Yukon. Because of her northerly coordinates, I thought first of snow clouds and then of sheep when I read fleece. In fact, the title poem refers to that fuzzy synthetic fabric so symbolic of current environmental questions. The narrator, a lost hiker, talks to the man who’s given her a ride: “Big deal, he said, we can make / sweaters out of plastic pop / bottles, yet there are places / where it’s illegal to hang your / washing out to dry.” This question of relationship—between strangers and family members, between individuals and culture, between human beings and nature—drives the collection.

The Fleece Era is divided into four parts. Each gathers variations on the theme of relationship, which modulates from section to section. The first part, “A Riddle,” concerns family and distance—both emotional and geographical. The narrator of “Overheard” imagines herself “shouting from the shore / of my mother’s Atlantic teacup.” The next section, “Emotional Expenditure,” considers the intricately interwoven social and bodily alienation experienced by its female narrator. In complement, the third part, “At Each Exhale,” examines the latent violence of intimate connections like marriage. “Scientist” narrates a painful disconnect between partners, enacted while skiing: “How is it I’m lost / yet you’re not, although / we’re on the same blank trail.” The troubled relationships of The Fleece Era remain open-ended.

The final section, “Nobody Else Dies,” takes up the vexed relationship of human minds to the natural world. “Ten Thousand Trees” is stark about the destructive drives of even ethically committed human beings: “I didn’t know the flash / of a forest gash could mesmerize, that there could even be a lust / to witnessing the first road ever forced on feral land.” In “Earth Twin,” the collection’s closing poem, Lilley writes wryly of a scientist who theorizes that “there might be planets even more / suitable for human life than ours.” She recognizes this as a dangerous fantasy: “It takes / a day or so for me to comprehend / he was talking about Heaven.”

Across the four sections, key relationships, characters, and themes create a world that feels consistent. There is a mother and a father, sisters and a brother, a husband. Yet there is a perceptual wobble, or say a parallax, built into the language that describes the central figure of these poems. This figure is sometimes an “I,” sometimes a “she,” and sometimes a “you.” This unstable centre, surrounded by more static figures, builds a sense of self-alienation across the collection. It seems an appropriate choice given the ecological position of contemporary Canadians, whether in the Yukon or Victoria. As Lilley queries in “Earth Crack,” “What if the piece of the world / I’m on tears off?”

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.

Language play enlivens Barton’s Polari

Victoria poet John Barton, perhaps as well known as the editor of The Malahat Review as for his 10 previous books of poetry, has just launched Polari, a new collection with Icehouse Poetry, an imprint of Goose Lane Editions.  Co-editor of Seminal:  The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, he has won a number of writing honours, including three Archibald Lampman Awards and a CBC Literary Award.  He teaches poetry workshops across Canada, at such places as The Banff Centre, the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the University of Victoria.  He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about Polari in an e-mail exchange.

John, I like the title of your new poetry collection, Polari.  Can you tell me a little about when you first learned about the word, derived from the Italian parlare, which you define as a “coded anti-language or idiolect at one time spoken by gay men.”

Polari? I am not sure when I first became aware of the term, exactly. In the last 10 years, maybe longer?  I would hear mention of polari, then forget what it was or how to spell or pronounce it, go searching for it, find it and forget it again, in a long, irritable and irritating cycle, until one day it stuck.

Of course, I am not of the generation who would have used polari terms in order to pass, since the reasons behind needing to “pass” are now nowhere near as relevant as they were sixty years ago (or more precisely thirty years before I came out)—at least not in the part of the world and the stratum of society that is mine. It’s a different matter in Russia or Uganda, for instance—and God knows how one chooses to pass in either. However, I am old enough to remember when the society I belong to was not as open-minded and the urge to speak plainly did truly involve risk—though not risk of imprisonment. I am sure gay men do still talk differently amongst themselves than they would if “non-gay” people were present—and when “non-natives/speakers” are part of the exchange, “experiences” are “translated” for them. Any group is like this.

I realized a few years ago that anyone who might overhear a group of gay men discussing matters solely of their mutual concern might still find the conservation hard to follow. This tendency toward opaqueness—toward this anti-language—is a way of marking and restricting space—and even of policing access of it.  The idea of polari even became a kind of joke to me—”Oh, am I speaking in tongues again—LOL?”

I can’t claim that I was consciously thinking about all these ideas while writing the poems collected into this book, but after writing the title poem it occurred to me that “polari” helped characterize their texture. The surface “beauty” of their language is a protective crust that challenges the reader to take a firm bite—sharpen those intellectual incisors!—by reading carefully (and sympathetically) in order to break through to whatever substance resides within. (Or so I vaingloriously and self-consciously think.)

I also enjoyed the way you played with rhyming language in this collection.  There was a time – not too long ago – when Free Verse Ruled; a poet dared not rhyme words for fear of being thought fusty, but now I see it cropping up in many contemporary books of poetry. Can you talk a bit about this shift?

Observing metrics and rhymes has fallen in and out of fashion since the origins of modernism in the early part of the twentieth century. The current vogue in Canada found its inspiration in the New Formalism movement that began taking hold in the United States in the mid-1980s, with Canadian poets like the late Diana Brebner taking up the influence in her work; I can’t think of anyone who would have tried her hand at such formal concerns in Canada as early as she did—or at least not as well. Today, Matt Rader and Elizabeth Bachinksky, I believe, are among the best practitioners.

For myself, I grew tired of writing in free verse and was looking for a new challenge, which so-called traditional, rhyming forms offered. I had written a little bit of formal verse—the sestina, the sonnet, and the villanelle—when I had been a student over 30 years ago, but had never explored the opportunities to be found in formal writing with any focus until eight years ago.

Writing a formal poem is akin to offering different appetizing tidbits to a fussy eater, having them refused one after the other until said child (or poem) takes a bite and some sustenance—and substance—has been both derived and transferred. It takes patience and inventiveness—much more than I would have ever guessed, especially once one gets beyond thinking that merely observing the rules is enough—the “what a nice plum, what a good boy am I” syndrome. Writing a formal poem is less like filling in the answers to a crossword puzzle than designing a mandala—it’s all about balance and intent. I like how adhering to a strict syllable count and a subtle rhyme scheme forced me to make decisions I might not have had to make had I chosen to write a free-verse poem. I might settle early on for something reasonably satisfying in the latter, whereas to get to something satisfying in the former takes much more tenacity. Writing formal poems expanded my vocabulary, made me more flexible in my expectations, and open to change. Writing in form is like doing aerobics or weight training; writing free verse is like going for a nice walk with great scenery, and if you have a dog, picking up after it.

Writing formal verse has re-enforced my belief, developed while writing free verse, that it doesn’t matter which words you use as long as they work well together.  The challenge ultimately becomes how to write a formal poem that still feels contemporary. For example, I decided not to be a stickler for singsong metrics—ten syllables always, but not necessarily in iambic pentameter. You want the formal attributes to support the poem and not be the end in itself. Also, to match the form to the subject can be crucial; it can make the tension between traditional form and the contemporary subject a subject of inquiry too. However choosing a form arbitrarily, without regard for the subject, and then making it seem like the obvious and only choice is great fun too.

 Some of your titles — I am thinking of “Bombproof Your Horse” or “The Book of Marmalade . . .” — tackle the world with a wry eye that simultaneously notes its violence and its mundanity.  Is that a renewed tension in your work?

The absurdity of these titles—which are titles that have won a Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year—automatically draw attention to itself, doesn’t it?  They bring the humour implicit in my work right to the surface. That said, I agree this book is wryer than my previous books. Humour is a defense mechanism we all deploy to sample a smorgasbord of personal and social hurts—a way to make them visible, to decry them if necessary, and if we are lucky, to put them into perspective. Up to a point, self-deprecation is so much attractive than self-aggrandizement. I might not have been able to write many of these poems had humour not empowered me to do so.  In the case of the Diagram Prize poems, they might not have occurred me at all.

 John, you have lived and worked in many regions of Canada – Saskatoon, Fredericton, Calgary, Ottawa – and your family history in this country goes back a long way.  Do you think of certain of your poems as products of geography, or is your relationship to space and place more nuanced than that?

I am not sure what place means to me any more, having moved about so much. It is a pleasant wallpaper against which I live my existence.  Now my response is less one of a tourist, by which I mean I don’t write a poem simply because I have been somewhere (though I have written my share of such poems)—a temporary geographic cure equivalent to grazing at a salad bar. I suppose I see locale as an opportunity to give a particular concern a context. Sometimes, through the concern in question, I become connected to the place where a poem is set. Writing a poem set in a familiar location renews my connection to it. “I am somewhere, therefore I am a particular am”—and am forever. How many tourists taking selfies of themselves with a smart phone can truly say that?

 I’m an old fogey, I fear, but I think our use of language is growing less precise every day.  Is there any one essential piece of advice you like to give the emerging poets you mentor in workshops? 

 No poet can afford to be imprecise, if she or he hopes to be any good. Anyone who aspires to the craft (however fey that may sound), should never allow themselves to think that their readers will get the gist of what is intended—i.e., don’t become too wed to what you’ve put down in your initial draft and think it’s good enough. Instead, revise, have fun, agonize, fall in love with your genius, despair, be surprised, and explore. And most importantly, be your toughest and best reader.

Poetry captures nuances of resilience

Steeling Effects

By Jane Byers

Caitlin Press

95 pages, $16.95

Reviewed by Barbara Herringer

From the very first page, Jane Byers plunges readers into her gritty, beautiful first collection of poems as she prises apart her experiences of resilience, of hanging on, of enduring. In short, Steeling Effects reveals the real world: a near-death birth, sexual assault, learning to be an adoptive parent of twins, being a lover, the intricacies of work, and the crucible of one’s geographic location. Her spare language creates a landscape that may be familiar, or at least understood by many of us — the tangled fragility and strength of our humanness.

In a recent interview with Shannon Webb-Campbell (Plenitude, Issue 4) Byers related that “steeling effect” is a phenomena in psychological resilience research suggesting that certain stressors may act as an immunization or enhancement of later functioning in an individual. That definition illuminates the journey of Byers’s life and the territories of resilience and resistance that she uncovers in each of the five sections of the book.

Byers moved to Canada from North England with her family as a young girl, and lives with her wife and two children in Nelson, B.C. Just days after the release of this collection by Caitlin Press, she won the Richard Carver Award at the Kootenay Literary Competition.  She is a three-time winner of the Nelson and District Poetry Competition. Even in her paid work with WorkSafeBC,  and previously in Toronto in corporate health and safety, the reality of resilience is foremost. And it’s shared in a remarkable section of the book.

Byers begins the collection with her near-death birth experience and ends it with the death of a 90-year-old friend. The first section of six poems sets the stage for life-shifting events. I appreciate how she illustrates the shifting moods of resilience in each poem — what keeps her going, what and who sustains her. She is generous in sharing those life-changing incidents that many would keep hidden. In “What Doesn’t Kill You . . .,” she sets the groundwork for the collection:

My first journey alone from uterus to incubator,
an inoculation against despair.

I study resilience.
I search for cracks in structures
returned to their original shape
after assault.

Breakwaters eventually break.

I vow to mimic the tensile strength of a spider web
and the mutability of bacteria
that render them resilient,
not the succor of cement.

I breathe my way back,

empty and fill,

to belief in my pliant self.

I found Byers’ section called “Joy’s Urgent Threshold” especially poignant. These poems move to a new level as she writes the space of parenting 14-month old adopted twins — their lives from birth mother, to foster parents, and finally, to Byers and her partner.

Still, how to explain those essential people disappearing?
What’s left is the efflorescence of tears on your face.
I hold you, you cry some more.
Now you insist, “I cry, I cry,”
as if it is your only birthright.
That lonely sob, a consent to loss.

Throughout the book Byers uses just the right word, line break and space to let us follow her narrative. She is generous to those who people her poems: her grandmother as an audacious young woman; women and men struggling with dangerous work; immigration. And she is generous with herself: how that first conscious breath seems to have set her on a creative path–and opened the door to steeling effects.I’m sure I’m not the only one waiting for Byers’s second collection.

Barbara Herringer is a poet and editor living in Victoria.   

Author and artist collaborate beautifully


By Anne Michaels and Bernice Eisenstein

McClelland & Stewart

Unpaginated, $35

Reviewed by Karen Enns

            Correspondences is a deeply layered collaboration between poet and novelist Anne Michaels, and artist and writer Bernice Eisenstein (author of the graphic memoir “I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors”). It is a beauty of a book, seamlessly blending form and content in a unique design that invites the reader into a communal place of remembrance.

The pages open out accordion-style between two hardcover plates. Read one way, Michaels’ long resonant poem unfolds; read the other way, Eisenstein’s portraits of writers, musicians, and artists, whose lives were brutally altered by the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges, peer out at the reader from muted backgrounds. Opened out completely, the gallery of faces spans the length of a large room. Eisenstein’s subjects include Anna Akhmatova, Bruno Schulz, Albert Camus, Charlotte Salomon, Osip Mandelstam, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and many others. The haiku-like text that accompanies each portrait is often, though not always, a quotation. Opposite the face of Tereska, a young survivor whose photograph was taken in a refugee camp, and about whom little else is known, are the words, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – Too?”

The end of one side of the book becomes the beginning of the other, pulling the reader into an endless loop of mourning. “Our eyes register the light of dead stars,” a quotation from the work of André Schwarz-Bart, speaks to the relentlessness of that pull; the haunting gazes in Eisenstein’s portraits are as hard to leave behind as they are to see again.

Michaels’s book-length poem begins in the dark, lyrical tone that carries the entire work: “The wet earth. I did not imagine / your death would reconcile me with / language, did not imagine soil / clinging to the page, black type / like birds on a stone sky.” There is deep grief in this elegy to her father and to the historical figures that shared his century. “A life is inextricable from a time, place, language,” she writes in one of the brief biographical notes that introduce the portraits, “If we seek it, if we are fortunate, our sensibilities and our grief find a true companionship — with certain writers, painters, composers, activists. To remember someone is also to remember this ardour, these allegiances, this necessity.”

The poem is a tribute to this ardour then, and to the ways in which language becomes a necessary part of its articulation, a connective tissue between the past and the present, between the mourned and those who mourn, and between the survivors themselves—the ones who have lived to tell the stories. Language, says Michaels, can either complete or dismantle us, “each word the reverse of a word.” Referring to the correspondence between Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, who appear as central figures (indeed, their portraits act as bookends on either side of the gallery), she writes, “For both, language was a leap of faith, staggering and minimal . . . .”

But this book is an artistic collaboration. Two art forms in dialogue can do more than one. If language seems inadequate at times, if it can make the leap only minimally, we have the visual to intensify the palette: “not two to make one, / but two to make / the third, / just as a conversation can become / the third side of the page.”

The accordion-style format means the reader has to physically support the book to keep it together. It is this act that adds a final dimension to the experience of Correspondences. The reader must also bear some of the weight.

Karen Enns’s new book of poetry, Ordinary Hours, will be launched in Victoria April 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Open Space as part of a group tour sponsored by her publisher, Brick Books. The three other poets featured include Arleen Pare (Lake of Two Mountains), Jane Munro (Blue Sonoma) and Joanna Lilley (The Fleece Era).

Poet captures link between language and place

By Joy Fisher

Vancouver writer Daphne Marlatt took her audience on a flaneurial stroll through the history of her city and its influence on her poetry and prose in the Lansdowne Lecture that opened the Second Annual Malahat Review Spring Symposium, WordsThaw at the University of Victoria recently.

Aided by archival photographs by Philip Timm that capture the city’s early history when big timber hid the sky and streams snaked through town and more recent photographs by Trevor Martin that reflect glass-walled skyscrapers, Marlatt illustrated the constantly transforming nature of Vancouver since its incorporation in 1886.

Marlatt’s personal connection with Vancouver began when she arrived as an immigrant in 1951. Born in Australia, she moved with her family to Malaya (now Malaysia), at age three, finally arriving in Canada as a nine-year-old. Her first impressions of her new country were of the “cold clarity of the sea” and a creek that ran through the family’s yard in North Vancouver, from which she gathered a sense of Vancouver as “fluid.”

When she was a student at the University of British Columbia, a visiting professor suggested Marlatt try to write about her early years in Malaya, but it was her adopted land that captured and held her attention.

Her first published piece, an imaginative story about Vancouver pioneer “Gassy Jack” Deighton, drew on city history. Although few knew it at the time, that piece predicted the future of Marlatt’s writing life. Vancouver has been a “well-spring” for her writing since 1972, she acknowledged, and she freely confessed that, although she writes about other subjects as well, her 40 years of writing about Vancouver has been “fairly obsessive.”

She noted, however, that she is not alone in taking Vancouver as her muse.  There are many others, she insisted, listing some prominent writers including Douglas Coupland, who roamed the world before coming home to Vancouver to settle down for good. Coupland later published a book of short essays and photographs about the Vancouver skyline called City of Glass. 

A series of exits from and re-entries to Vancouver living sharpened Marlatt’s sense of Vancouver as a constantly changing city. This affected not only Marlatt’s choice of subject matter but also her writing style. For instance, in the 1970s, during a time of rapid growth in the city and change in her own life, she wrote of vacant lots and construction sites. Reading from her work, she demonstrated how the rhythms of her writing became “jumpier,” echoing the rhythms of the city life around her. Her prose was becoming more poetic, and eventually her genre of choice became poetry.

As a young writer, Marlatt delved into city archives as a way of trying to make herself feel at home in a strange new place. She acknowledged that, for her, acculturation was a long process, but by the time of her “fourth entry” into the city in 2000, after some years spent on Salt Spring Island,  she finally felt like she was “coming back home.”

As the city continues to change, she and her friends sometimes ask one another: “Do you remember what used to be there?” Often they don’t, but Marlatt insists that the ongoing transformations don’t leave her with a sense of loss, but rather with a sense of “layered richness” which she tries to embody in her poetry.

“Life’s a gift. You can either hold onto it or you can give it away,” Marlatt said. She believes in giving it away through her writing.

Marlatt’s most recent book is Liquidities: Vancouver Poems Then and Now, published in 2013 by Talonbooks.

Joy Fisher graduated with a BFA in writing from the University of Victoria in 2013.


Poetry book fine travelling partner

The Book of Places

 By Yvonne Blomer

Black Moss Press

2012, 95 pages.

Reviewed by Arleen Pare

            Book of Places is a neat little square of a book that would fit into most back pockets, most backpacks, most travel bags going most places in the world.  It’s a fit travel companion too, covering not only geographic space, but also psychic space. Adulthood, for instance.  The Past.  And Japan, Thailand, Wales, England, Rhodesia, Canada, Nevada.  Exile.  Sorrow.

But first, full disclosure: the author of The Book of Places, Yvonne Blomer, is a friend of mine. And while it is generally agreed that friends should not review the books of friends, in the case of Blomer, this becomes difficult.  Blomer knows almost all the poets and writers in Victoria, maybe in BC, and many are her friends. She has served as representative for The Federation of BC Writers, continues to host of one of Canada’s most successful reading series, Planet Earth Poetry; and she teaches writing at Camosun College. She knows writers.  Who possibly could review this book without sharing some writerly connection?

The Book of Places is Blomer’s second book of poetry. Her first, a broken mirror, fallen leaf was short-listed for The Gerald Lampert Award in 2007.  Her third, As if a Raven, has just been released.  She has published two chapbooks, has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, and co-edited, along with Cynthia Woodman Kerkham, the recent Poems From Planet Earth, itself a stunning anthology.

Places is divided into three parts, with each section occupying a slightly different landscape.  In the first section, for instance, Blomer offers the reader a range of physical places: a field with a woman in it; a desert with a man in it; a road with a boy on it.  All beautifully rendered: in the desert, the “light is pixilated / feather-patterned through dust.”   From “Woman in a Field:” The sun so bright, almost / bright enough to hold her there.”

And “Packing to Leave,” a travel poem, begins with the advice: “Take nothing. All this is someone else’s,” and ends with: “Take your toothbrush / Whisper into the hollows of the house / leave your name.”  Poetic advice, and haunting, the advice of a poet who knows her craft and who has left home.  Blomer is also an avid, no, make that a passionate cyclist. When she writes “Cycling home, Norwich,” she creates a cadence, a tone so true, so convincing, the reader is on the bicycle with her:

the way I let it soar and fall

around each aching corner. How

I barely look up at church, Medieval

stone buildings, the city hall

and falling down, dropping now toward taxi stand, market

I roll: body still, arched, ready

to spring loosely over bumps and bricks I know

are coming.

I must recommend this slim, squared volume, the perfect travel size.  The perfect trip.  And though Blomer has travelled much and far, about places, she admits, “I never knew/ how to leave/ and stay, all the same,” touching on one of the basic conundrums of life, whether in this place or that.

Arleen Pare is a Victoria poet and novelist.

Nisga’a poet challenges anthropology

The Place of Scraps

By Jordan Abel,


272 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

The Place of Scraps by Nisga’a writer Jordan Abel is a collection of poetry with an intriguing premise: Abel has started with Totem Poles, a foundation text by noted anthropologist Marius Barbeau, extricated passages, and created word pictures and images to explore the tangled relationship between cultures and the exploration of them.

Abel employs the technique of erasure, and in some cases gets a poem down to punctuation, forming a cloud of tiny marks, reminiscent of fireflies or mosquitoes. The use of blank space on most pages is remarkable, opening up the possibility of a wide array of thought and feeling regarding what has happened to First Nations culture. And on pages filled with images and letters, the same opportunity is paradoxically presented.

A fragmented thread of narrative conveys the story of Abel’s life, in particular his contact with a totem pole from his ancestral village, which his mother has identified in a book and says he saw as a child. “But the recurrence of the totem pole in the poet’s life combined with an apparent failure of memory carries with it a multiplicity of emotions.” The carved pole connects Abel to his people, as does a spoon carved by his absent father and given to him by friends of his father. The concept of carving connects objects—the wood of the poles and the spoon—and words or images carved out of Barbeau’s work by Abel’s imagination. And one carves out a life of surrounding matter. Or possibly one is carved out of life.

This book is meant to be absorbed more than read. Abel does develop forward motion, but a reader gains much pleasure from going back and looking at random pages as visual art as much as poetry. Many of the pages present pictures of words or letters or images with words and letters in the background. Sometimes the letters are piled up as if a typewriter stuttered or a printer jammed, resulting in a heavy black cloud of repetition. The black and white pictures of totem poles, sometimes presented sideways or upside down, are arresting.

The Nisga’a and other carvers of poles did not try to preserve them. The poles eventually fell and rotted, returning to the earth in a natural cycle. When Abel finally goes to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to see the pole his mother talked about, his experience captures an aspect of cultural difference: “The poet confronts the admissions staff member at the ROM, explains that he refuses to pay to see a totem pole that was taken from his ancestral village. . . . The staff member shrugs, verbalizes his apathy, and allows the poet in to the museum. The pole towers through the staircase; the poet circles up to the top. The pole is here; the poet is here.”

I love the symmetry of that line—“The pole is here; the poet is here”—just as much as I love the fact that the paper of this book is made from wood pulp, and this particular object will also form a step in a natural cycle of change, both concrete and abstract.


Candace Fertile is a Victoria reviewer who teaches English at Camosun College

Collection reveals largesse of Planet Earth

Poems from Planet Earth
Edited by Yvonne Blomer and Cynthia Woodman Kerkham
Leaf Press, 208 pages, $20

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

Planet Earth Poetry is a reading series at the Moka House in Victoria, and over the years many poets have offered their work to an appreciative audience. Editors Yvonne Blomer (who runs the reading series) and occasional host Cynthia Woodman Kerkham have assembled a diverse collection from over one hundred poets who have read, showcasing the richness of Planet Earth.

Patrick Lane, a star not only in the local poetry scene, but also in the poetry world at large, contributes both a poem and the introduction to the book. He explains the genesis of the series’ name, which is taken from P.K. Page’s poem “Planet Earth,” and notes that Page “is one of the masters, the progenitors of the poems that live among these pages.” Lane eloquently shows poetry’s importance: “We reside forever in this one precious moment. Life seethes around us. It lives, it dies, it lives again. A poem is at times our only stay against all that assails us.” Poems from Planet Earth presents an exuberant cacophony of voices examining uncountable facets of life.

Blomer and Kerkham had a monumental task in creating the volume; choosing how to organize the book must have been a challenge. The editors have opted for seven broad categories into which they have placed the poems, with a short introduction to each section: Life and Loss, Nature, Place, Love, Death and Hope, Music and Art, and Family. Obviously, many poems could be slotted into numerous categories. The volume also includes acknowledgements and biographies, so it’s a handy tool for further investigation. Curiously, the alphabetical contents at the beginning are by poet’s first name, rendering the list less helpful than it could be, but that is a minor quibble as the biographies are alphabetized by last name.

The voices contained include the well-known, such as Lane, Lorna Crozier, Jan Zwicky, Pamela Porter, Patrick Friesen, Patricia Young, and Sheri-D Wilson. But with so many contributors, most readers are sure to discover a new voice. And as over half of the poems are published for the first time in this volume, every reader will encounter something unfamiliar.

The forms vary enormously, with most being free verse, but closed forms such as the pantoum can be found (John Barton’s “Les beaux-arts, Montréal”) or the sestina (Tanis MacDonald’s “Sestina: Whiskey Canyon”). This volume does good job of showing the vastness of poetic approaches.

I’d recommend dipping into this book at random. It doesn’t matter if the poems are read in the order as presented. The content is a bit uneven, but with so much included, readers will get much of value. Kudos to Planet Earth Poetry for its continued celebration of poetry, and kudos to Blomer and Kerkham for creating this engaging and eclectic collection.

Candace Fertile is  Coastal Spectator’s poetry editor.